Editor’s Note — The following article is based on a program presented by Gary Sexton at the Museum of Scott County on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. For more information on prehistoric artifacts in Scott County, or if you’ve got a potential archeological site on your property, contact the Museum of Scott County at (423) 663-2801. It is illegal to dig or take artifacts from the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area or any other public property.
Do you have a rock shelter on your property? Chances are, it could hold secrets from a time long ago.
It’s only been around 250 years since the first white explorers and long hunters began traveling across the northern Cumberland Plateau. But civilization here dates back as far as 3,000 years. Well before the time of Jesus Christ, there were indigenous people living in this region.
And Gary Sexton, director of the Museum of Scott County, has the artifacts to prove it.
The museum, which sits on the campus of Scott High School, is the nation’s only museum to be designed, built and curated by high school students. It is perhaps best known as a sort of replica pioneer village that sprawls across several acres of the school campus. But the museum started as a single building, and inside that original museum building is a large number of prehistoric artifacts that came from right here in Scott County.
Most of the artifacts inside the museum were unearthed by Scott High students, on archaeology digs under the guidance of Sexton, who is also an archaeology teacher at the school. Last week, Sexton opened the museum to the public for a night of learning, giving a presentation on what prehistoric life was like in Scott County, and how to discover the artifacts those early humans left behind.
Rules and guidelines
First things first, Sexton said it’s important to understand where you can dig for artifacts and where you can’t.
“The Big South Fork was very trepidatious about me doing this tonight,” Sexton said, explaining that it is illegal to dig for artifacts in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area or on any other public property, whether it’s owned by the federal government, state government or local governments. The Big South Fork is home to numerous sites of archaeological interest, but many of them haven’t been thoroughly explored, and artifact looting has been a big issue for years. The National Park Service doesn’t take rock shelter looting lightly, and routinely prosecutes offenders.
“I don’t care whose permission you have, I don’t care how stealthy and sneaky you think you are, there’s a chance you’ll get caught,” Sexton said.
Meanwhile, he added, it’s also illegal to dig on someone else’s private property without permission.
“If you take something off the land, it’s stealing just like it would be if you took anything else,” he said. “So get permission if you dig on private property.”
Sexton acknowledged that digging for artifacts is a controversial subject. There’s an academic line of thought that only trained university PhDs should dig for artifacts, and that the general public should leave potential archaeological sites alone. But Sexton said there’s something else people need to know:
“It’s legal, L-E-G-A-L, legal, to dig on private property,” he said.
There is one exception. Any time a grave is discovered, the digging must stop, and the proper authorities must be notified. That’s required by the federal Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA.
Sexton pointed out a dig by his anthropology students at a rock shelter above New River, less than two miles from Scott High. A group of 30 students were participating in the dig, and came across the graves of a prehistoric woman and her child, believed to be about 3,000 years old.
“The minute you find prehistoric or Native American bones or body parts, and you can rest assured that’s what it is, you’ve got to report that to the county coroner immediately,” he said.
The late Tom Des Jean, a former archaeologist at the Big South Fork, was working with the Scott High team on that dig near New River.
“We didn’t remove anything, we didn’t remove any artifacts that were associated with the dig, because you’re not allowed to do that,” Sexton said. “We reported it, photographed it, charted it, did everything we were supposed to do, then covered it back up.”
The University of Tennessee was contacted to do an osteology report to determine the age of the bones. But when the anthropologist reported it to the head of his department, things got hairy. Sexton wound up being reported and an investigation was undertaken. Both he and the school were ultimately exonerated. But, he added, “I’m telling you this because it’s serious stuff.”
So, with those ground rules in mind — no digging on public property, no digging on private property without permission, and no digging if Native American body parts are discovered — Sexton said that digging is completely legal, fun, and informative.
Where to dig
Sexton said the best places to dig are rock shelters that face east or southeast — the ones that will receive sunlight most of the day.
“It’s hugely important,” he said. “They weren’t flipping lanterns on. And they weren’t turning heaters on. The sun gave them heat in the winter, and it gave them light. It gave them everything they needed.
“If (the rock shelter) faces the north, it’ll very seldom get sun,” Sexton added. “I’ve dug rock shelters that face north and seldom find anything.”
It’s also important that there be a water source nearby — preferably inside the rock shelter itself.
“If you’ve got a rock shelter in the middle of nowhere and there’s water nowhere near it, you’re probably wasting your time,” Sexton said. “They weren’t going to be carrying water.”
The third thing to look for is chert, a type of rock that flint is taken from. Chert does not occur naturally in Scott County. That means that if a rock shelter contains chert, it was carried there by a human being and is almost certainly an active archaeological site.
“It’s the best thing you could possibly find,” Sexton said of chert. “It might be a little, meaningless nothing piece of chert. It’s nothing special unless you know what you’re looking for.”
Most chert found inside rock shelters is what is referred to by anthropologists as reduction fragments — pieces of stone that were chipped off as prehistoric people were carving spear tips, arrowheads and other items.
“It’s the garbage that’s set aside,” Sexton said. “It’s just laying on the ground and it means nothing. If you’re digging, you’re just going to throw them away, like I do. But before you start digging, if you find those, that’s important because it tells you that you’ve got an active site.”
How to dig
Sexton’s anthropology students dig in very small sections of ground, removing only a little dirt at a time. They’re meticulous with their work. Using trowels, they scrape dirt away in 10-centimeter increments, meaning they’re only digging four to five inches of earth at a time. They bag anything and everything they find, and document their findings.
“I’m trying to teach them anthropology, the right way to do it,” Sexton said, adding that two of his former students have gone on to become anthropologists. “When you do it that way, then you know, ‘At this level they found mussel shell, at this level they found bone, at this level they found projectile points.’”
That’s important, because the closer to the surface the artifacts are located, the more recent they are. By documenting the depths of things like deer bone, mussel shells and pottery that contains remnant carbon, you can determine what prehistoric people ate over time.
Not everything found inside rock shelters is interesting, of course.
“You’re going to find historic stuff mixed with prehistoric stuff,” Sexton said. “You’re going to find bullets, you’re gonna find shell casings, you’re gonna find metal. None of that stuff is prehistoric. But you’re gonna find that stuffed mixed in with the Mississippian stuff (the time period from A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1600).
One of the oldest artifacts discovered in Scott County is a beehive pot, which was carbon-dated by the University of Tennessee and determined to be around 3,000 years old. Sexton said you won’t find many artifacts in Scott County dating back to the paleo period, which ended about 3,000 B.C. That’s an indication of when human settlement began in this region.
Sexton said a sifter is a vital tool for digging. By pouring buckets of dirt into the sifter, you can separate dirt from things like bone and rock.
As for how much to dig, Sexton said to dig until you find yellow, sandy loam.
“In rock shelters, the soil is so fertile,” he said. “There’s thousands of years of leaves breaking down and composting, going on and on and on. When you’re digging, you’ll see the dirt changing colors. It’ll go from dark to lighter color, back to dark. When you finally get to yellow, sandy loam, you’re finished. You might as well not go any further.”
That layer of sandy dirt will be between three feet and five feet below the surface in most instances.
“When you hit sand, there’s no more digging,” Sexton said. “You’re done. (But) the rich dirt usually will have artifacts in it in the rock shelters that are facing the right way.”
The bottom line
Some archaeological digs are fruitless. Others are interesting. Sometimes it’s just a matter of where you choose to dig within a specific rock shelter. But, of course, you also need to know what you’re looking for.
That’s where the Museum of Scott County can help. Sexton is planning further classes for adults who are interested in prehistoric artifacts, and he can offer guidance to people who have rock shelters on their property that they’re interested in exploring. Tackling a dig without knowing the right way to do it can lead to artifacts being unintentionally destroyed. The public can stop by the museum Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays or Fridays during the summer months, between the hours of 12 p.m. and 4 p.m.
“Here’s what’s gonna be in this box,” Sexton said, demonstrating a sifter. “It’s gonna be a bunch of rocks that don’t mean nothing. You’re gonna pick them out and throw them over your shoulder. But if you aren’t careful, you’re gonna throw pieces of pottery over your shoulder. Because they look just like rocks.
“Just think,” he added, showing off a piece of crude pottery that was found inside a rock shelter on his Scott County property. “That pottery is 3,000 years old. Someone was squatted down on my property, making that. Then they used it to cook with. And it’s still with us 3,000 years later. That’s pretty cool, I think.”